The Psychology Behind Generational Conflict

Older people have groused about younger people for millennia. Now we know why

boomer illustration head to head
Older people tend to believe that younger generations lack whatever traits they themselves possess in abundance. Illustration by JD King

Complaining about the young is a longstanding prerogative of the old; just as baby boomers and Gen X’ers today lament the shortcomings of millennials and Gen Z, parents in the 1920s looked askance at their flapper daughters, the mothers of pre-revolutionary France pooh-poohed their “effeminate” sons, and so on back to the fourth century B.C. and Aristotle, who said of Greece’s young people: “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”

Now, some 2,500 years later, researchers are offering a pair of psychological explanations for this recurring complaint, or what they call the “kids these days effect.” In studies involving 3,458 Americans ages 33 to 51 recruited and evaluated online, John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara, measured respondents’ authoritarian tendencies, intelligence and enthusiasm for reading. “While people may believe in a general decline,” the researchers observed in the journal Science Advances, “they also believe that children are especially deficient on the traits in which they happen to excel.”

Authoritarian people, it turns out, are more likely to suspect that today’s youth are lacking in respect for authority, while well-read people are more likely to bemoan that kids these days never seem to be reading. More intelligent people are also more likely to say that young people are getting stupider—a remarkable conviction, given decades of rising intelligence domestically and globally.

At the heart of this denigrating effect is flawed memory, Protzko and Schooler say. Sometimes older people mistakenly recall that kids in the past were more accomplished than today’s kids, who suffer by comparison. “People in their 20s and 30s are going to grow up looking at kids and thinking they’re deficient,” Protzko says. So, while the baby boomers continue to weather volleys of “OK, boomer” from youngsters who blame them for despoiling the earth, older Americans can take comfort in knowing that members of Generation Z will one day hear the inevitable: “OK, zoomer.”

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